Nerthus is a profound Norse/Germanic goddess (of the Vanir clan of gods) whose true might, in my opinion, is merely implied by the often cited excerpts from Tacitus’ Germania, which outline several religious practices, including a wain procession, feasts, recreational events, and a ritual washing of the goddess (in statue form), followed by the drowning of the slaves who looked upon her in order to perform the washing. Another excerpt, if we can conclude that it refers to the same goddess, refers to her aversion to iron weapons, the importance of amber to some who worshipped her, and the sacredness of the wild boar in matters of worship and protection. These excerpts stress her importance but do little to elaborate on the substance of her greatness. Tacitus gives us glimpses into her role as a “fertility goddess”; however, in my experience with Nerthus, there is a breadth and depth to that role that is not elaborated upon in the relevant excerpts from Germania. In addition to having influence over fertility, she holds other godly offices that are not stated by Tacitus. Beyond Tacitus, we have archeological evidence of bog contents including bent iron weapons, grand strings of amber, domestic animals, and human sacrifices which some scholars believe are consistent with what we know of Nerthus’ worship.
In case it is not clear at this point, Nerthus’ lore is quite sparse. We know very little of her and her worship. The least ambiguous primary source is Tacitus’ Germania but it is filled with prejudice, bias, and interpretatio romana; consequently, it may not be as accurate as we would like. I do not believe it needs to be completely disregarded, but definitely should be taken with a grain of salt. Consequently, the majority of what I present here will be grounded in my own sacred experiences with Nerthus and only tacitly linked to the lore – such as it is.
The encounters I have had with Nerthus pointedly indicate that she is a sovereign goddess of life and death. Thinking elementally, her power comes to bear most clearly in the machinations of earth (twisted roots, ancient bones, caves, deep untouched forests, etc.) and water (lakes, streams, creeks, bogs, as well as parts of the ocean). As a fertility deity, Nerthus is the authorizing force behind both life and death, the genetic codes that permit life and trigger death. To my understanding, Nerthus is the code for life inside the seed, the conditions in the soil that support that life, and she is the code that causes the full grown plant to expire and she is the musty destructive force of decay and the fact that death feeds life and she is the new seed sent by wind and rain and grazing animals to sprout in distant soil to begin and end the process again. This very basic cycle applies to every living thing with a few additions and some differences in the details in the overall scheme of things.
When Nerthus’ wain was pulled by oxen throughout the land, it was to bring the blessings of fertility and Nerthus was honored as the generator, authorizing agent, queen of that fertility, sovereign mistress of the process outlined above. The essential, fundamental nature of the process makes it sacred, perhaps the process is even the most sacred, holy thing to ever be. Due to that sacredness, it would have been a deadly honor to see the face of Nerthus, goddess of the sacred and the holy. This is why I believe those who saw her face were drowned. Some say that the slaves went willing to their deaths after looking upon Nerthus’ face. I tend to agree. They were slaves to the goddess and they willingly entered her embrace. I believe the same is true of the human sacrifices at the bogs. Bogs are liminal places where water and earth meet. They would have been ideal places to honor a goddess with strong ties to those two elements. Anyone who has glimpsed Nerthus knows that her pull is extremely powerful and would have no trouble believing that some would happily follow her to their death.
Due to her link to the most holy and sacred of Earth processes (life, death, and fertility) I believe that she can be understood as goddess of Earth-centered holiness. To give one practical example of what I mean, in my experience, Nerthus can help us to identify and make sense of sacred experiences rooted in our bodies and/or the Earth. She can also help us to find and give proper honor at sacred sites (e.g. significant caves, groves, secluded forest spots, places where ley lines intersect, etc.). As Lady of Holiness, Nerthus becomes Our Lady of the Ineffable, those Earth-centered, body affirming experiences that escape words and reason. She encourages union with the various parts of self and it is in the power and grace of that union that Nerthus’ face is revealed.
I am happy to share my perspectives about Nerthus, but she is a profound and multifaceted goddess so none of what I discuss above should be construed as the whole story, the best story, or the only story about Nerthus. All I know for a fact in my work with her is that I am richly blessed by her in countless ways. Hail Nerthus!
Boar, Birch, and Bog: Prayers to Nerthus by Nicanthiel Hrafnhild
Churchill, J. (1992). Something Deep and Sinister, Modern Theology, 8, 15-37.
Tacitus, Germania, Chapters 40 and 45
The Troth, “Nerthus and Njordhr” Chapter